ELL: asking for information

Claire Bowern bowern at FAS.HARVARD.EDU
Thu Aug 8 22:49:59 UTC 2002

Dear Roger,
(I'm replying on-list because others may be interested in the situation or
may disagree with my portrayal!) Sorry too for the delay in replying -
tricky question!

First, about phoning - phoning tends to be much more effective than
writing when dealing with Aboriginal organisations; it's just the way they
work. I know it's expensive, but it will save you a lot of time and
frustration, and of course they are a legitimate expense in the
documentary-making process. (I'm in the US at the moment and to talk to
some of the people I work with I ring a public phone in the community and
hope that someone I know picks it up!)

Secondly, about the current situation and what's typical. I work primarily
in the far North-West of Western Australia, and I don't know very much
about the North Queensland situation. The linguistic situation varies
quite a lot across the continent, depending on a lot of things but

. when the area was first colonised
. what it was used for when it was settled (grazing lands, agriculture,
a mission, town, etc)
. how remote it is now
. what state it's in

In most of the country the linguistic situation is pretty dire. Only about
20 languages are still being learnt by children, the bilingual education
program in the Northern Territory was abolished in 1998 and the general
social situation of many Aboriginal people remains awful. The white
Australian population is by and large startlingly ignorant about
Australian languages and in some cases still quite hostile about people
speaking them (but more often than not not hostile, just ignorant or
apathetic). The language profile is very low in the wider media, although
it's being raised in the Aboriginal media (such as Goolarri and BRACS).

At the other end of the scale, though, there are communities where many
traditional languages are still spoken and English has a relatively minor
role. Which communities you want to look at will of course depend on the
sort of issues you want to talk about in your documentary. If it's about
language death, somewhere like North Queensland is probably a reasonable
place to start. If you want to look at language revitalisation, the first
major program was done with the Kaurna language in Adelaide (another area,
incidentally, where there is a whole spectrum of language use); Gamilaroy
would also be another good bet (they have an online dictionary, as does
Kaurna, links from Dave Nathan's site - www.dnathan.com). There are
some smaller programs in other areas.

A further point about documentaries, and please don't think that in making
it I am criticising your project in any way (especially since I don't know
what it is!). A lot of Aboriginal people are very sick of having
documentaries made about them and having anthropologists come and observe
them and linguists come and write down their language and newspapers write
depressing articles about what a sorry state they're in. They feel it
reinforces the negative stereotypes that they are subject to without
allowing proper recognition for their achievements. This is also relevant
to you because it may affect the reception you get if you film in a

Of course, to do this you don't need to falsify the situation at all. To
give an example of the sort of thing I mean, when I was on fieldwork last
year I got the local newspaper to write an article on the oral history
project I was involved in. The article described the collaboration between
the old people and me (a young white Australian linguist) and how I was
helping them record a part of their incredibly rich oral tradition and
how we were making it into a book and set of cassettes for the community
to teach Bardi literacy and language.  Now, it could have said that I was
there with the last 30 speakers of Bardi scrambling to preserve as much as
possible before the language is lost since the kids aren't learning it -
as it turned out we made a positive article about it and it was the only
positive article about Aboriginal people that the paper published in the
six months that I saw of it. The article was all over the community, the
photos got blown up and stuck on people's walls, in short it was a Big

So there are some thoughts for you and for the list to add to, shoot down
or generally discuss.

Best wishes,

Department of Linguistics
Harvard University
305 Boylston Hall
Cambridge, MA, 02138

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